This past spring I taught both a Milton seminar and two sections of Brit Lit I, which at Big Urban concludes with selections from Paradise Lost (I do more than most instructors: all of books 1-4 and 9-10). Because I'm a dork but especially because I'm a masochist, I decided that it would be fun to come in on a Saturday--a week before the end of term--and stage a marathon reading of Paradise Lost and encourage the students from those three classes to come, promising them extra credit if they stayed and participated for a set minimum period of time. It went beautifully: my Milton students loved it and even many of my survey students professed to have enjoyed the experience and to have been inspired to read the rest of the poem.
But the first class period after that reading one of my smartest survey students interrupted our discussion to say, "I'm just wondering: is Milton funny?"
Uh, I said. Well. Milton's not typically thought of as a witty writer, no--not in the way that Donne or Herrick is. . . why do you ask?
"Because during the reading on Saturday, you and that guy next to you [George Washington Boyfriend] kept laughing, but I didn't really see what was funny. And reading this at home, I still don't see it. It's complicated and really interesting. . . but I don't think I ever laughed while I was reading it. I believe that it's funny, since you seem to think it is, but I'm not getting the joke."
I stammered for a minute, came up with a few mildly funny moments, and then deferred to the rest of the class: did anyone else find the poem funny? One student admitted that she did, and that she'd written in the margin things like "LOL" or "psyche!" at moments when Satan was clearly fooling himself, so I seized eagerly on this and talked about the dramatic irony produced by what we and the narrative voice know about the fall and redemption, and the characters' more limited perspective, and blah blah blah, and class went on.
However, I was bothered by this conversation for days afterwards. Because the thing is, I really do think that Milton is pretty hilarious, and I always have--back in college, HK and I both covered our copies of Complete Poems and Major Prose with marginalia much like my second student's (e.g., in Book 1: "So God was stronger. Who knew?").
But with the exception of Milton's often viciously funny prose tracts and the amusing spectacle of Satan's hubris, much of what I find funny is material that I'm not at all certain is intended to be funny. I crack up at the conversations between God and the Son, and between Satan and Sin and Death; I'm amused by some of the narrator's aggrandizing claims; and lots of little things--the elephant waggling "His Lithe Proboscis"; the image of the serpent moving in an upward, springlike motion before the fall--similarly make me smile.
So okay: I think that Milton is awfully wacky, and I think that I do a good job of conveying my own sense of delight and wonder at his wackiness to my students. This is useful in the classroom, when so much time is necessarily devoted to historical, political, and theological back-fill. But isn't there something . . . condescending about reading an author this way? Sure, Milton's claim that Jesus's statement that anyone who divorces and remarries is committing adultery actually isn't a condemnation of divorce--not at all! the Bible clearly permits divorce!--seems to defy logic, but is it appropriate to shake one's head and laugh at this?
I probably wouldn't still be mulling this over if I hadn't, in fact, been accused of being disrespectful of Milton (especially of Milton, although the charge has been made about some of my work on other writers) by certain scholars. Granted, these have all been scholars of a certain vintage--all much older white men--and I don't really respect the grounds on which these charges have been made (the first reader of one of my articles began his 13-page, single-spaced review with a lecture on how important a figure Milton was; how I clearly didn't realize his stature; and how "we should be leery of taking pot-shots at dead authors who can't defend themselves, lest we discourage future generations from reading them"), but I do wonder whether there's a tiny bit of truth there. When I describe Milton as "wacky," am I not, in effect, patting him on the head, bringing him down to size--and consequently building up myself and my authority?
I'd like to think that my amusement at the material I work on (right now I'm reading some of King James's political writings, and I keep laughing out loud) is a good thing--just a bit of scholarly dorkiness and enthusiasm, and something that doesn't necessarily diminish the carefulness or the quality of my work--but now I have this nagging doubt.
What do you think? Has anyone else had these concerns?